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    The Food Writer’s Dilemma

    There has been much hand-wringing of late about the state of food writing. Amanda Hesser gave stark advice for future and current food writers. John Birdsall gave his own perspective on the industry. Adam Roberts talked about whether or not food blogging is over.

    All of this self introspection is navel gazing at best, because the food writer’s dilemma is the same dilemma that most every writer has always had. How do you make a living at this? The answer to this question, at least at a high level, has never changed, one iota.

    Here are the answers, or, as I call them, rules to this lifestyle.

    Rule #1: Always be Writing: Period. Full stop. Every day, write something down. It’s amazing to me that the amount of people who want to be writers who don’t do this simple task. Yes, take a break from time to time. But one hundred words, or a thousand, it doesn’t matter. Write, write, write as long as you are mentally able.

    People who master rule one can feel free to call themselves a writer. However, this isn’t the subtext of Hesser’s, Bridsall’s, or Robert’s point. Because without a paying audience, you’re writing to yourself, and this, unless you’re independently wealthy, is not a viable career option. So you have to add another rule to your skill set, one that allows you to make a living at writing.

    Rule #2: Always be Selling: This is where most people slip up, because they believe that if they write something magnificent, the world will come knocking upon their door.

    This just isn’t so. You have to sell either your work or your talent. Some of us get other people to sell our work for us. Other’s figuratively pound the pavement themselves and end up with a long term writing gig at a newspaper, magazine, web site, or other medium. But the rule is, if you want to make a living at writing, you have to sell yourself. Sorry.

    The discussions that are occurring now are little more than lamenting the fact that the rules have changed. To this end, they are right. The changing media landscape means that traditional paths to (food) writing have shifted, altered, or have disappeared completely. This is the bad news.

    The good news is that there are other paths out there. Other paths have yet to be uncovered. You (and I) have to be motivated enough to look for them, or create them ourselves. If writers are unable or unwilling to do this, then your income will always be limited.

    There is one way (out of many) which will find these paths more often than not. Sell good writing. I know, I know. “Good” is subjective. But there are two more rules which will help distinguish your writing, and make it unique.

    Rule #3: Always be Editing: Any work can be refined. The first draft almost always is horrible, and the second draft is rarely much better. Add into this the fact that every writer has their blind spots when it comes to grammar, spelling, narrative form, thesis establishment, and a host of other writing issues that I could write a book about. Learn to edit. Until you do, find an editor who believes in you and work with them, not against them. This means being critical of your self, and understanding that writing is a craft, first and foremost. Good writing is almost never a solo effort.

    The last rule is an extension of rule #3, but applied over the entire endeavor.

    Rule #4: Always be Improving: I suck at selling. I realize that, for me to be able to be full time at this, I have to improve at this skill. I am marginally better at writing, and have only recently been confident enough to understand that editing and writing are similar, but not the same to one another. Every single writer out there, whether it’s Michael Chabon, Amanda Hesser, or Kate Hopkins, all can improve in one of the three areas above. To get where we want to be, we should be looking to get better at each of these areas. When we writers get good enough at all three, success, in some degree or another, will follow.

    These rules have not changed in five hundred years of the publishing industry. They existed back in M.F.K. Fisher’s time, and they exist today. Yes, aspects of these areas have altered in one way or another since the first published author, but the basic rules are still the same.

    If you want to write, then write. If you want to make money at it, then sell yourself. If you want to keep on selling yourself, get better. Everything else is little more than shop talk.

    Writing From Authority – Power Dynamics and the Roles of Writer and Reader

     

    I find it coincidental that yesterday, Adam Roberts asked the question “are food blogs over?”, during the same time I’ve been trying to figure out the role of the individual blogger and their relationships with their readers. The two points are intertwined, in my point of view, as there seems to be something of a innovation vacuum in the food blogging, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what blogging “is”.

    It needs to be stated that this last point is strictly my opinion, but it’s based on an idea that was reinforced by my shaping beliefs about writing, as well as a post from Terrible Minds entitled 25 Lies writers tell (and start to believe). I was particularly struck by #9:

     ”I write only for me!”

    Then don’t write. Sorry to be a hard-ass (ha ha, of course I’m not), but writing is an act of communicating. It’s an argument. It’s a conversation. (And yes, it’s entertainment.) And that necessitates at least one other person on the other end of this metaphorical phone call. You want to do something for yourself, eat a cheeseburger, buy an air conditioner, take a nap. Telling stories is an act we perform for others.

    For the longest time, I’ve said that you only need one thing to blog  - to know why you’re blogging. Everything else will fall out of that.  But my assertion had an aspect that I didn’t take into account – the audience.  I was blogging, at first as a place where I could store items I could use for larger writing projects, then I was blogging as a means to communicate some of the most egregious behaviors of food companies, and then I was blogging as a way to either distract myself from, or, at times,  highlight aspects of my larger writing projects.  Not once did I take the role of the reader into account. Unknowingly, my own reasons for writing had backed me into a corner.

    If a writer, blogging or otherwise, needs an audience – and we all do, or else what’s the point  - then the writer should look at the relationship between themselves and their audience.  That relationship can be looked at in a multitude of ways, and can manifest itself in ways from loving, to hateful, to everything in between. Regardless of how it manifests itself, the relationship between a writer and their audience is a power dynamic. The writer has the ability to influence that dynamic through words, and establish the relationship with their readers based off of differing levels of charisma, knowledge and expertise, writing skills, celebrity,  and power of persuasion. The writer, by definition, dictates the relationship, although the readers can shape it as well through a variety of methods.

    A long time ago, I made a decision to base my writing on knowledge and, later, expertise. This was a conscious decision made from the simple, controversial opinion that I believe that writers, when communicating to/at their audience, should know what the hell they are talking about.

    (Side Note: This is power dynamic is clearly on display in both of my books, but from the opposite side of the coin.  Both books start with someone at the start of the book lacking knowledge (Krysta in 99 Drams, and myself in Sweet Tooth), and then using history’s narrative to fill us in on the details of the relevant subject.  The idea was to give the reader an avatar-of-sorts to which they can share the experience and keep them engaged in the book. How effective I was at that is up for debate.)

    When it comes to food blogs – heck, blogging in general – such consideration of the power dynamic between reader and writer never occurs.  The result is that we have blogs out there where the writer is talking at their reader, rather than with them, and their authority comes only from the skill of their writing and “loudness of their bullhorn”.

    The “loudness of their bullhorn” needs some explanation. It’s nothing more than a metaphor, really, with the bullhorn being the medium in which the writing is conveyed, and its loudness being the amount of readers that come to the site.  The Huffington Post or Eater.com both have a louder bullhorn than mine here at Accidental Hedonist.  This would change if I had more everyday readers than either of these two sites. However to do that, I would have to sacrifice some things very dear to me, like sleep, and some aspects of my personal ethics.

    Authority and power dynamics are  weird, intangible variables that are very rarely considered when someone starts a blog.  When everyone has access to tools that allows them to have a bullhorn, then what distinguishes one person with a bullhorn from another? Some use technology to gather more hits on their sites – this is where SEO and publicity and marketing come into play. To extend the metaphor further, this tactic is little more than turning up the volume on the bullhorn.  The risk with this tactic is that if your loudness is the only arrow in your quiver, then eventually you will come across as shrill and/or vapid.

    No, writing has to be more than the size of the readership. Quality of the writing needs to come through at some point. Now quality means different things to different people. For some, as long as the content created by the writer is entertaining, that’s enough.  For others it’s being informative, and still others it’s grammar and spelling.  It’s in this aspect that a good writer will consider many of these variables and address them to one degree or another. In my experience, the less variables considered, the less chance the writing has of being any good.

    I could go on about this all day. But my point here is that good writing and good blogging comes down to how well the writer considers their role in the power dynamic they have with the reader. If all the writer is considering is how well their food looks on their screen, or how to shape their posts to get the most readership exposure, or how many posts they have to make in a given day to please their editor, then the trust they have with the readers is minimal to non-existent.  Good writing comes from somewhere else.  If blogs, and by extension food blogs, want to break out of their stasis, they need to find ways where they are communicating with their readers, not communicating at them. Because if they don’t, then they are doing little more than adding irrelevant data to the fire hose  that is Internet.

    More importantly for myself, I have to hold myself to the same standard.

     

    The Dumbing Down of Recipe Writing

    There’s an interesting article in yesterday’s Washington Post surrounding the intentional dumbing down of recipes.

    Choice paragraph:

    At a conference last December, Stephen W. Sanger, chairman and chief executive of General Mills Inc., noted the sad state of culinary affairs and described the kind of e-mails and calls the company gets asking for cooking advice: the person who didn’t have any eggs for baking and asked if a peach would do instead, for example; and the man who railed about the fire that resulted when he thought he was following instructions to grease the bottom of the pan — the outside of the pan.

    This is the kind of thing that’s both sad and funny. Yeah, yeah – someone not knowing whether to grease the inside or outside of a pan contains its own pathos, but there are several reasons for this regression in cooking skills.

    The article mentions one of them, with both parents working certainly being one of them. The others (not mentioned) are the prevalence of microwave ovens, and pre-processed meals that can be easily heated within said microwaves. I still remember one college friend who wanted to make me dinner, and I later found myself sharing a plate of luke-warm Stouffers stuffed peppers. I realized then that people’s ideas of what constitutes “cooking” varies greatly.

    Personally, I feel this dumbing down of cooking is not a reflection of the people but rather more of a reflection of the times in which we live. There’s a reason why Rachel Ray’s 30 minute recipes have hit home…we live in an era where time is an expensive commodity and people are cutting corners where possible.

    Would I love for people to be cooking more? Absolutely. But beyond extending a day by an additional 8 hours, I’m not sure how that’s going to occur.

    (Thanks to Gwyn for the heads up)

    Technorati Tags: Food, Recipes, Food News


    Ah, Brenda Starr, Truer Words Were Never Spoken

    Gakked from here.

    thanks to Jessica!


    Comped Reviews are Biased! Long Live the Comped Reviews!

    Now comes a discussion on one of several topics that makes me all heeby-jeeby — ethics and food writing.

    For those of you not prone to following the times and travails of food critics, there’s been a bit of a brou-ha-ha of late revolving around one John Mariani. Mr. Mariani is a food critic for Esquire Magazine and his word carries a fair amount of weight in the food industry.

    He’s also been recently bitch-slapped by Chicago Chef Homaro Cantu, where Cantu accused Mariani of sending Cantu’s PR people “a four-page list of requests before dining at moto (Cantu’s restaurant) last year, asking the restaurant to pay for everything from cab fare to his hotel bill — requests the restaurant did not honor”.

    Mr. Mariani and Esquire magazine have both denied these accusations, but Esquire hedged their bets by stating that Mariani is a freelance correspondent for the magazine, not a restaurant critic. Which would be all well and except for the recent column in Esquire where Mariani has penned an annual list of the nation’s “20 Best New Restaurants“. Pardon me for saying, but the title smells oddly like a backhanded compilations of reviews, unless the initial title of the piece was “20 Best New Restaurants that I, John Mariani, Have Eaten In and Have Not Compared Against Any Other Restaurant”.

    Call me crazy, but when you say one restaurant deserves to be on a “Best of” list, and another doesn’t, that’s a review — an oversimplified and inferred review, but a review nonetheless. But I am picking at nits here.

    The real issue comes down to what is the ethical standard when doing reviews? The Association of Food Journalists recommends reviewers dine anonymously when possible and not make reservations under their own names, and a list of several other behaviors to which critics should adhere. According to this piece in the LA Times, Mariani misses the mark on several of these activities.

    But I don’t think that Mr. Mariani is at fault here. As I’ve started dabbling my toe or two into the Food Press, there’s an underworld at work that the general audience doesn’t get to see, that of the publicist and various PR firms. Their job is to get their clients — whether it’s a chef, restaurant or a product — noticed. They do this because a chef, restaurant or producer go out of their way to get those with a voice (like John Mariani, or on a much smaller scale, this site) to notice them.

    Also, as Steven Shaw noted in an eGullet forum thread about Mariani:

    Paying for a meal doesn’t necessarily make a writer unbiased. Accepting a comp doesn’t necessarily make a writer biased. Those who sell out deserve the disapprobation of all; those who write with integrity don’t deserve to be dismissed just because they accept a subsidy….

    …the travel and food media would contract to a fraction of their current size if comps were eliminated, and what would remain would be the old money, unimaginative, increasingly-irrelevant-and-biased-despite-unlimited-budgets old media. Comps are the basis on which smaller, newer media outlets and freelancers exist.

    To which I’ll add, sometimes getting comped products can be a good thing, especially when you get something great that you hadn’t expected. Not to bring it back to me, me, me, but I felt oddly good writing about Adagio Tea the other day. Not because it was a free product (which it was), but because it’s a damn fine product. Does the fact that it was given to me by the tea company change the quality of a product? Not at all. What is at stake here is how you, the reader, interpret a review and the perceived biases of the writer.

    Granted, there’s a huge difference between restaurant review and product reviews. But the real issue is the matter of trust built amongst the readers of the reviewer. Mariani writes damn fine reviews, well thought out, and perceptive. That he has built a credit line of trust amongst his readers is undeniable. Whether his reputation will be tarnished by this incident remains to be seen. His biggest unproven crime, it seems, is not that he accepted comps, but that he started asking for them — and here’s the biggest point — got caught doing so. Do you believe that he’s the only food writer out there that asks for comps?

    I’m not trying to deny that there’s a fine line here, as there most certainly is. The skill of a reviewer comes not only from their writing, but also from their ability to navigate what compromises their stated ethics and what doesn’t. Without the former ability, readers won’t come to the writer, without the latter, the readers won’t stay.

    Technorati Tags: Food, Food Writing, Journalistic Ethics, Reviews


    Digital Dish Redux

    I just wanted to touch base with you guys once again, to let you know that Digital Dish is still on sale, but copies of the book may not be available in the near future.

    Owen of Press for Change, the publisher of the book has let me know he’s still taking orders for the book, so if you want your copy, now is the time to hop on the ol’ bandwagon.

    To purchase the book, you can click on the links located on the left column (in the Bibilography section), or you can got to Amazon.com, or you can even head over to Press for Change and click on several buttons there. The end goal here is to buy the book.

    There are many excellent articles in the book, some of which were written by yours truly. What better way to support the food blog community than by purchasing this compilation? Well.. you could pay each and every food blogger $1000, but I expect that’d get a tad expensive. This way your support is far most cost efficient.


    Meta-blogging: Awards and Quality of Food Blog Writing

    I wanted to touch upon this yesterday, when writing about the just release James Beard award. But Hillel over at Tasting Menu beat me to the punch. He raises some important points about the lack of acknowledgement by the mainstream food establishment when it comes to food blogs.

    The mainstream food media has really started to recognize the high quality content coming from the hundreds of food blogs that have sprouted all over the net. Maybe eventually these contests will catch up as well.

    I couldn’t agree more. It would be great if awards given out by folks like the James Beard Foundation or the Bert Green Awards, given out by the International Association of Culinary Professionals would recognize some…no wait…any of the great writing happening on food blogs.

    It’s not a measure of quality. Many of the posts I’ve read over the past year equal (and often surpass) the level of quality of demonstrated by the nominees of both awards. Seriously, take a look at my favorite post from last year… Shiokadelicious‘ post about birthday cakesOf Birthday’s Past. Now compare that against any of the nominees, and tell me how it compares against say…Internet Nominee Natalie MacLean for her post American Idol.

    Whoops, you can’t. Because the article isn’t listed on her site.

    I don’t mean to Disparage Ms. MacLean, who does write wonderfully. My point here is that these awards tend to be geared towards established food writers who happen to have an internet presence, rather than those who work almost exclusively on the ‘net.

    However, the food blog community needs to understand just how good we are. When fall rolls around this year, we need to ensure that several of us have the confidence and courage to actually apply for these awards.

    A lot of this, I’m sure, is a bit of an inferiority complex on the bloggers part. We’re a new medium and no one knows exactly how to make an imprint, aside from being recognized by the established food media. We, the food blogging community, fall squarely into the unestablished food writing media. We have our fans, we have our passion and we have our outlet. What we don’t have is recognition from the upper echelon of the foodie world.

    The question is now, what can we do about it?

    Really, the only thing I believe we can do is to keep writing.

    That’s it.

    Any time a new medium is introduced, there is a period of time from when the established medias take the new one seriously. The key for this to happen, is to have the participants of the new medium to take themselves seriously. From looking across the vast array of food blogs out there, we’re already there.